Kim Ki-duk—South Korea’s foremost purveyor of symbological horseshit—takes another stab at castration anxiety in Moebius, a dialogue-free fest-circuit readymade about a nuclear family who cut off dicks and then stare at each other blankly. The opening, which climaxes with mom (Lee Eun-woo) attempting to geld cheating dad (Jo Jae-hyeon) before setting her sights on their teenage son (Seo Young-ju), is one of the more energetic stretches in Kim’s recent work—a feverish fit of knife-swinging sexual violence that, for once, feels of a piece with Kim’s butt-ugly digital cinematography. Then come the Kim standbys: prison, incest, religious iconography (this is, after all, the guy who titled his previous two features Amen and Pietà), repetition. A viewer familiar with the filmmaker’s latter-day schtick can’t help but wonder: How can an artist be so persistent in his use of symbols, and yet never manage to develop them beyond a rudimentary metaphorical framework?
As in all of the films Kim has made since 2007’s Breath, imagery trumps function and schematic repetition stands in for theme. Many scenes come in triplicate: the son being repeatedly beaten up by schoolmates, the father periodically contemplating suicide with a revolver, the father’s mistress (Lee again) baring her breasts for the son every time she sees him. It’s occasionally ponderous, though not exactly humorless; Kim recognizes the absurdity of the premise, and the film’s middle portion works fitfully as a transgressive, silent black comedy, with queasy masturbation alternatives, bizarre Google searches (“orgasm no penis”), and some instances of body horror effectively played for laughs.
As its title suggests, Moebius is a loop; its structure and symbolism express a dubious worldview built around the equation of the shocking and mundane. Yes, Kim is effectively inverting a family melodrama, muting its dialogue and foregrounding its uncomfortable psychosexual underpinnings so that viewers can deduce the more conventional story underneath. Still, comparison—“these two dissimilar things or people are really the same”—isn’t much of an endpoint, and the double casting of Lee doesn’t exactly help matters; when it comes down to it, this a movie where the only major female characters are intentionally interchangeable and exist only to castrate men.